Padhraic and Una Minh swimming

Oftentimes people don’t realise how much work goes into planning long-haul holidays.

From confirming flights and hotels to paying off tour groups and liaising with airport pickups, a lot went into our three week holiday.

In this post, we’re looking at each tour group that we used on our trip and how they fared in our opinion. The tour operators we used were: Handspan, Intrepid Urban Adventures, SaPa O’Chau and Buffalo Tours.

This will be a long post, so if you’d just like to jump to a specific tour group, simply click CTRL + F on your keyboard and type in the tour name into the box that appears and then press “enter”. This will bring you to the tour description that you’re interested in.

For our reviews, we have already fed back information to the tour groups and have included responses we received so far – our tour guides’ names have been removed for privacy reasons, except those who publicly asked to be reviewed on Trip Advisor.

Handspan

Handspan has been around since 1997. They pride themselves on responsible tourism and organise small tours throughout Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar: “We believe that tourism is fundamentally about connecting people and that the differences that separate us can be bridged with the span of an extended hand”. We chose to do “From the Mountains to Halong Bay”, a five-day tour.

Our experience

We were met by our guide at our hotel (which they offered to do), and she brought us to a minibus where we met our driver. Both were incredibly pleasant and our guide was extremely professional throughout the entire five days. Throughout our journey, we were also offered plenty of water and never went thirsty.

We had an incredibly varied experience and the homestays had great character. They were safe and clean and our hosts served excellent food. The only iffy one was the bungalow we stayed in, in the Tam Coc Rice Field Resort. It was scenic but their chef definitely needed to upskill. The food there was bland and uninteresting.  More on the breakdown of our living quarters here.

Noreen and Una-Minh in Mai Chau

As part of our tour, we ended up in Bai Tu Long Bay, part of the Ha Long Bay area but far less touristy. The area was just as beautiful and breathtaking as Ha Long Bay. A day and a night on the cruise ship were actually enough too and the staff on the cruise ship were top notch with infectious enthusiasm.

Something to note: I know that obviously, Handspan wants clients all year round, but I would highly recommend them amending their tours slightly for the summer season. It’s incredibly hot during the summer months that it becomes unbearable to trek through. Plus it’s dangerous to walk and cycle in that heat.

Everyone had excellent English and all were very professional. We provided our feedback through a physical form that we got, but have not received a response as of yet.

What we spent: $528/€475 per person (not including drinks or tips) which I paid in dollars.

  • Value for money: 5/5
  • Tour guide: 5/5
  • Driver: 5/5
  • Accommodation: 4/5
  • Overall rating: 4.5/5

Intrepid – Urban Adventures

In 2010 we did a three-week tour with Intrepid, and this time around we decided to go for the branch-off division of their company: Urban Adventures. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, and you’re guided by a local. They are also keen on responsible tourism where they limit any negative impact on the daily lifestyles of local people or physical impact on natural and cultural environments. They work to prevent the exploitation of children in tourism. We chose to do two tours with them, a night food tour and a cycling tour.

Hanoi Street Food by Night

We did this tour towards the beginning of our three week holiday. Chinh Vu was our tour guide for the evening and he was very enthusiastic. We were a group of about 10 and were guided safely through the winding streets of Hanoi, all the while experiencing delicious food and discovering new and hidden locations. Our guide was very knowledgeable was open to sharing a lot with us. He also popped into a shop to buy water for us. Food portions were very generous and we had plenty to try.

Street Food Tour with Urban Adventures

Village Discovery by Bike

A week before the tour was due to start we had to cancel one spot, as Mom decided that it wasn’t for her. They were so swift to refund it with no issues. Tuan Nguyen was our guide for the day and he was very professional. We got to cycle on the outskirts of Hanoi, taking in the beauty of the countryside, but also the harsh realities that some of the people have to go through. It was a poignant insight into how the poorest of the poor live and something important I think that was worth highlighting. Our guide made sure that we were kept safe while on our bikes, and we wore helmets at all times. The bikes themselves were well maintained.

Something to note: It would have been great to have gotten a map of the locations we visited so that we would remember where we went.

Both our tour guides were really friendly and had great English. We all got a free bottle of water on each tour which was most welcoming in the heat. I provided our feedback to Urban Adventures on Twitter and Trip Advisor and waiting to hear back on my map suggestion.

How much we spent: €46.43 per person for the two tours with 20% discount with code.

  • Value for money: 5/5
  • Tour guides: 5/5
  • Overall rating: 5/5

SaPa O’Chau

SaPa O’Chau pride themselves on sustainable tourism by helping SaPa’s young people gain fair access to education and employment. Their trekking business is staffed by ex-students and other young people from local communities. It’s the first ethnic minority led and owned international tour operator in Vietnam and they aim to get students back-to-school with sustainable careers. We chose to do the Muong Hoa 3-Day Trek.

Our experience:

We got to experience the real countryside of SaPa, while roaming through unexpected places like rice paddy and corn fields. This was quite an exciting experience for us as it was completely new. You can read about our accommodation here.

The mist on the Muong Hoa Trek

Our tour guide was very patient with us and she offered us information without hesitation. She also made sure that we were very safe throughout the tour. That being said, she spoke very much about herself and there were times where it felt that she wasn’t really listening to us. There were just three of us on the tour for three full days and she wasn’t able to remember our names (Noreen, Úna and Poh).

We also think that she should not have been on her phone as much as she was (when we were at homestays she liked to move away and spend a lot of time with the homestay families and also looking at photos and videos on her phone – she showed us some of the photos too but to be honest it was not something we were particularly interested in). We believe that guides should not really be on their phones in front of their customers if it’s unrelated to the tour.

Another thing is that it would have been lovely to receive an information pack from SaPa O’Chau instead of having to ask for information in the office. We would’ve loved to learn where exactly our money was going to and sustainable tourism, but this information was never offered to us.

Point to note: We were offered water at the very beginning of the tour but we didn’t need it at the time as we had our own. Then we weren’t offered any more for the full three days (we had to buy our own – see in contrast with Handspan).

Also: One thing I discovered while browsing through Trip Advisor is that SaPa O’Chau’s responses to customers each time was incredibly generic. This is something I found disappointing to see, as people were providing feedback and deserved a decent response. That being said, they do give a more personal response when you email them directly.

SaPa O’Chau’s response:

“Thank you very much for your email and feedback. We are highly appreciate [SIC] it.

We already double checked all information with our tour guide, [name removed] and she said that it was her faults [SIC] and she would like to give you an apologize [SIC] and thank you so much for your feedback. She has learned a lot from this lesson and she will never do like that [SIC] in the future with other customers.

We have taken note and will remind to all our tour guides in the meeting at the end of this month.

Regarding about the water in the trek, normally we offer a bottle of water for the first day of trek and then the customers can purchase more on the way to villages or at the homestays. Hence the customers can support more for the homestays’ owners or local people. Futhermore, we are supporting the ethnic children to go to school as well as providing jobs for the ethnic minority people in Sapa by using the profit from the organising tours around Sapa and Northern Vietnam. I total agree with you that a bottle of water is not a huge amount of money ($1) but it is a breakfast of one our student or staff.

Thanks again for choosing our services and friendly feedback. Hopefully, we will have a chance to meet you again in the future.”

How much we spent: $115/€104 per person (not including our tips for the homestays and drinks). I paid for the tour in cash, in dollars.

  • Value for money: 3/5
  • Tour guide: 3/5
  • Accommodation: 3.5/5
  • Overall Rating: 3/5

Buffalo Tours

Buffalo operate in 11 countries throughout Asia and describe themselves as “the best in customised guided tours to Thailand, Indonesia (Bali), Indochina, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China”. We chose to do a customised tour that didn’t stop at the more common tourist attractions.

Our experience:

We got to see some of the less touristy parts of the city but this was by far the most disappointing tour for us. We had heard great things about Buffalo Tours but it didn’t live up to expectations at all. We were left disappointed and certainly didn’t think it was value for money (especially being close to $100 altogether).

When we brought up a few suggestions for improvements (like maps of where we visited) the tour guide became quite defensive and told us that he was actually called earlier that morning to stand in for this tour. Overall there was a lot of walking with very little interaction from the guide, apart from when we stopped at specific landmarks.

We firmly believe that a good guide should offer information and not force the customers to drag it out.

This was such a shame because we had heard great things about Buffalo Tours and we were really looking forward to the experience. Will we book with them again? We don’t know, as it’s hard when your first experience isn’t great.

Buffalo’s response:

“Please accept our sincere apologies that your experience was not all you were expecting. Do trust that I will share your feedback with your guide, [name removed]. It’s quite correct that a guide should be more forthcoming with information and local tidbits – we do not expect our clients to need to solicit information. This feedback actually comes at the perfect time, because we are currently running our annual guide trainings throughout Vietnam, and this is something that I will most certainly share your comments with our teams.

Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any further comments or queries. We welcome all feedback as an opportunity to improve our services and identify opportunities for improvement.”

What we spent: $33 per person (not including tips) and I paid in dollars.

  • Value for money: 2/5
  • Tour Guide: 2/5
  • Overall rating: 2/5

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(Prices correct as of July 2016)